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Pope presses environment message in bio-diverse Ecuador
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Pope presses environment message in bio-diverse Ecuador

Pope Francis waves to the crowd as he rides in the popemobile through Samanes Park, where he will celebrate Mass, in Guayaquil, Ecuador, Monday, July 6, 2015. A crowd estimated at 1 million people, greeted Francis on the packed dirt of Samanes Park for a late-morning Mass. (AP Photo/Fernando Vergara)

QUITO, Ecuador (AP) — Pope Francis pressed his case for a new economic and environmental world order Tuesday during his South American tour, saying the goods of the Earth are meant for everyone and must not be exploited by the wealthy few for short-term profit at the expense of the poor.

Francis’ call, delivered on his final full day in Quito, is particularly relevant for Ecuador, a Pacific nation that is home to one of the world’s most species-diverse ecosystems but is also an OPEC country heavily dependent on oil extraction.

He delivered the challenge in back-to-back speeches at Catholic University and then in a meeting with business leaders and indigenous groups, the latter of which have championed his recent encyclical denouncing what he says is the profit-at-all cost mentality of wealthy nations exploiting the poor and destroying the planet in the process.

“The goods of the Earth are meant for everyone, and however much someone may parade his property, it has a social mortgage,” Francis said. “The tapping of natural resources, which are so abundant in Ecuador, must not be concerned with short-term benefits.”

Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa has been harshly criticized by environmentalists and indigenous groups for pushing mining and oil drilling in the Amazon, which together with the Galapagos Islands give Ecuador an unrivaled designation as one of the Earth’s environmental priorities. That push, coupled with high crude prices, allowed Correa to lift 1.3 million people out of poverty in his eight years in office.

Francis has called for environmentally responsible development, one that is aimed at helping the poor without sacrificing the planet. The oil industry, and its supporters particularly in the U.S., has criticized the pope’s anti-fossil fuel campaign as irresponsible and uninformed.

“As stewards of these riches which we have received, we have an obligation toward society as a whole and toward future generations,” Francis said. “We cannot bequeath this heritage to them without proper care for the environment, without a sense of gratuitousness born of our contemplation of the created world.”

It’s a message he is likely to repeat later this week in Bolivia, the next stop on his three-nation South American tour, where he will meet with grass-roots groups, environmentalists and indigenous representatives. Bolivian President Evo Morales has been hailed as an environmental hero to many for demanding rich nations do more to halt global warming, but he has been assailed by conservationists at home who say he puts oil and gas extraction ahead of clean water and forests.

Francis began his last full day in Ecuador with an open-air Mass that drew more than 1 million people and featured readings in Quichua, the native language mostly spoken in Ecuador, and Ecuadorean vestments for the pope.

In his homily, Francis urged Latin Americans to channel the same urgency that brought them independence from Spain two centuries ago into spreading the faith on a continent where Catholicism is losing souls to evangelical movements.

The Mass location, at Quito’s Bicentennial Park, was appropriate given that Ecuador was where the first cries of independence against Spanish rule arose in Latin America in 1809.

“There was no shortage of conviction or strength in that cry for freedom which arose a little more than 200 years ago,” Francis said. “But history tells us that it only made headway once personal differences were set aside.”

Latin America counts 40 percent of the world’s Catholics, but the church is losing out to Protestant evangelical ministries that have focused on the continent’s poorest communities with real-life guidance on employment and education.

While the drop-off in Spanish-speaking South America hasn’t been as sharp as it has been in Brazil, it is notable: Some 95 percent of Ecuador’s population was Catholic in 1970, and now the figure is down to 79 percent, according to the Pew Research Center.

In a bid to counter the trend and return the Catholic Church to its evangelizing origins, Francis has called for the church to return to being a missionary church that looks out particularly for society’s poorest and most marginalized. It’s a message he crafted for the entire Latin American church when he played a leading role in a 2007 conference of bishops in Aparecida, Brazil.

“Evangelization doesn’t consist in proselytizing, but in attracting by our witness to those who are far off, in humbly drawing near to those who feel distant from God and the church, those who are fearful or indifferent,” Francis told the crowd. “Proselytism is a caricature of evangelization.”

Francis arrived at Bicentennial Park to cheers of people who camped out overnight for a good spot. They were rewarded with a pre-dawn deluge that sent some 20 people to paramedics with hypothermia, city operations director Cristian Rivera said. But the sun broke out as Francis arrived in his popemobile, with fans tossing confetti on him as he zoomed by.

“The joy at seeing the pope gives us the warmth we need,” said Abel Gualoto, a seafood vendor as he rubbed his cold hands together to try to stay warm.

Tuesday was expected to end with a visit to the Church of the Society of Jesus, known locally as Iglesia de la Compania. The Jesuit church, a Spanish Baroque gem, is one of the oldest and most well-known in Ecuador. It houses a painting of the Virgin Mary that was said to shed tears in 1906.

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Nicole Winfield on Twitter: www.twitter.com/nwinfield

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Associated Press writers Jacobo Garcia and Frank Bajak contributed to this report.

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